In 1990, a young college student named Chris McCandless turned his back on his considerable prosperity, his family, and his own education, and walked off into the wilds of America. By 1992, sixteen weeks after he decided to take on the Alaskan wilderness with nothing but a 22-caliber rifle and a ten-pound bag of rice, he was dead.
McCandless starved to death out in the wastes of Alaska, presumably weakened from an infection. He chronicled much of his journey, as well as much of his eventual death. But his death at age 24 was the beginning of his journey; he has since turned into a cult figure of gargantuan proportions. The old bus that he had turned into his home in the Alaskan wilderness has become a place of pilgrimage for thousands of people. Today the bus is crammed full of hundreds of yellowing, crumbling composition books signed by the thousands of visitors. He has achieved all the fame and notoriety, all the white-hot attention of our celebrity-obsessed culture, that he would surely have found revolting, what with Jon Krakauer’s book making it to the top of many high school summer reading lists, and Sean Penn's 2007 movie starring William Hurt and Marcia Gay Harden. To an equal number of people he is a narcissistic, arrogant, self-obsessed, ungrateful little whacko who brought his fool death on himself.
Whatever you end up thinking about McCandless – and his story is an intriguing one that deserves some thought – I can’t help but think about another young man who incurred his family’s wrath by a radical ascetic renunciation of wealth, position, and prospects: Francis of Assisi.
Like Chris McCandless, Francis had a fraught relationship with his father. Like McCandless, he made a very public (and for his father, very embarrassing) disavowal of material goods. But unlike the unlucky McCandless, Francis had a framework in which to fit his asceticism: the medieval Church, which affirmed the sanctity of the ascetic life in monasticism. The young boy pursuing his history and anthropology degree at Emory University had no such outlets readily available, and no cultural context into which he could pack all that ascetic longing – a longing as intense, as profound, and as particular as a sexual orientation.
Medieval Christianity was a culture that failed to provide safe places for lots of people, but by God, it sure knew what to do with ascetics. In fact, the monasteries and convents were not the holy prisons or warehouses for the inconvenient we tend to envision, but really a sort of parallel society in which lesbians and gay men, ascetics and educated women, artists and philosophers and musicians and the mentally ill could all find a more amenable cultural context than the ordinary medieval world. In other words, they looked pretty much like the campus of your average liberal arts college.
|So, Matins at 5, yeah?|
Francis’s ascetic orientation was so deep that the monasteries themselves couldn’t satisfy him. Like McCandless, he needed to wander, to carry his message of radical asceticism to the people of medieval Italy, the smallfolk who had little access to the world of the monasteries. Besides, Francis found the monasteries corrupt – hierarchical, shot through with greed and materialism and worldliness, all the things they were meant to reject. So he encouraged his companions to wander and preach and live amongst the people, and to encounter what McCandless called “the raw throb of existence.”
Judaism does not have the developed ascetic tradition of Christianity and many other religions, and in fact sees the body’s continual self-denial as a hindrance to prayer. Rejection of marriage, in particular, is alien to the mainstream Jewish tradition, though of course outlying groups like the Qumran community have at various times lived their Judaism differently. More often, Jewish asceticism found its outlet in movements like the early Hasids. The Hasids of 18th century central Europe reordered their lives around their rebbe, a Francis-like figure who called them to radical holiness and the stripping away of all distraction from immersion in the word and presence of God. This might also involve some material self-denial, as previously wealthy Jews gave up more lucrative professions in order to live near their rebbe, or donated huge sums to the poor of their community.
One of my favorite Hasidic stories is about the young disciple of a rebbe, who when he was in the House of Study, was never able to get beyond the opening words, “And God said.” Whenever he heard these words read aloud at the beginning of a passage, he had to rush outside and lean against the wall, hugging himself and laughing, repeating over and over and over: va y’omer! va y’omer! And He said, and He said. At its root, asceticism is what the young Hasid experienced—that radical opening to the unnoticed, that sense that we stand on the crust of the earth above molten magma, and we have only to break through the crust of material preoccupation to stand in fire.
No society does a great job of taking care of all of its outliers. There will always be people for whom society provides no place. We might think we do a better job of it than medieval Europe did, but probably we don’t; our answers, and the groups of outliers we can help, are just different, not better. It was Chris McCandless’s misfortune that there was no Francis standing on the quad at Emory, no presence of an alternative existence to tell him he was not alone, that he did not have to forge this path all by himself, that there were others who thought and felt as he did.
But things did not Get Better for Chris, and we lost an ascetic we should have been able to keep. Lux perpetua luceat ei. May light perpetual shine upon him.